Evangelical Politics

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(Host) Commentator Olin Robison returns today to share some thoughts about President Bush and his religious beliefs.

(Robison) President Bush wears his religious beliefs easily and openly and talks freely of them. Sometime this last year the journalist/author Bob Woodward asked this President Bush whether he looks to his father, the first President Bush, for advice.

Woodward quoted the current president’s response this way, he said that his father in Houston “is the wrong father to appeal to in terms of strength. There is a higher father that I appeal to.” The president’s speech writers now sprinkle biblical references throughout his speeches and, of course, his references to “evildoers” taken from the 21st Chapter of Proverbs are now standard in his foreign policy speeches.

Some weeks ago the newspapers were full of stores about the President addressing the annual meeting of the Southern Baptist Convention which he was doing for the third year in a row.

Mixing religion and politics isn’t new during presidential electoral campaigns but this time it has a special quality. It is central to the persona the President has chosen for himself and he wears his religious beliefs as a badge of honor.
I do not wish to suggest that George W. Bush came to his religious beliefs for political reasons. But I do believe that he is keenly aware of the current political advantage that can come because of those beliefs.

Now, allow me to turn aside for a moment and establish my credentials for commenting on these matters. I grew up in East Texas in a blue-collar working class world where everything that mattered was centered on home, church, and school, in that order. We were what would now be called fundamentalist Christians.

The Southern Baptists in my home town have always been on the far right wing of the Southern Baptist spectrum and yet we looked upon them as the “liberals.” I grew up safe and secure in that world; later pastored a country church while I attended theological seminary in Texas before eventually going to far away England where, in due course, I received a doctorate in theology from Oxford University. In other words, I believe myself to have had the experiences that qualify me to have opinions on this subject.

The personal faith that the president wears so proudly scares me. It scares me because it produces in the believer, in this case the President, a perception of divine calling, of being a person chosen by God to lead, not unlike the calling of King David of the Old Testament. That was, after all, roughly 3000 years ago but I doubt seriously that the time gap matters to President Bush.

Conservative evangelicals pride themselves in believing the Bible to be literally true, that each and every passage is to be followed in the most literal sense.
And yet it is usually a highly selective reading of the scripture. For instance, there is the New Testament story of the rich young man who comes to Jesus and asks to follow him. The scriptures say that Jesus told the young man to “go, sell all you have, give it to the poor, and then come follow me.” I have never once heard a sermon based on this story.

But then there is the scripture which says “blessed are you, when men shall revile you and persecute you, and shall say all manner of evil against you falsely, for my sake… for great is your reward in heaven.” In other words, the more the President is criticized, the more he knows that he is right.

And do I think President Bush sees himself in this way? Yes, I do. And it scares me. Because it allows him to see himself as God’s special messenger and he knows that to be true because people like me are critical of what he is doing.

This is Olin Robison.

Olin Robison is president of the Salzburg Seminar, located in Middlebury, Vermont and Salzburg, Austria.

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